“Since when have things been easy?”
My dad said this to my mom while she ferociously unloaded the dishwasher. It’s been months of angry housework. The rest of us stayed out of the way. I sat in the dining room, staring at decades of photographs. Dust tickled the insides of my nose—my eyes watered and I sneezed. The memorial was in two days.
Death never comes at a convenient time for the living. Even with months to brace for impact, knowing full well that someone is in that oily place between living and dead, grief’s seatbelt is still a chokehold after the crash. My grandfather’s death was a year in slow motion.
The stroke happened like most strokes – without apologies. That night on the phone he was still groggy, his voice muffled by an oxygen mask. Comfort came only in stirs of mumbled vowels. At least he was alive. People handed me this counterfeit hope regularly, watched me walk face first into a spider’s web and didn’t say anything at all.
There is something dissolute about the orderliness of a hospital. The way it doesn’t smell much like anything at all, and everybody always tries to get somewhere. His room in the ICU was private, most of it taken up by the muted excruciating roar of machines and tubes pumping in and out of his body. The left half of his was face sunken, frowning, the other half curling into attempts at smiles as he slipped in and out of sleep. John, whose thunderous refereeing of our yearly highly-competitive shuffleboard matches nearly got our entire extended family cited by the Rehoboth Beach police force for noise violations one summer, sat by the bed narrating a Steeler game to the entire ICU unit.
It’s 8am and it’s too hot to sleep. There are six fans in the beach house, three of them are oscillating, and all of their breezes are enveloped by sweating bodies before they can get anywhere else. At 9am after an hour of begging and 15 minutes of slathering every inch of my pale skin in sun-screen, Grampity slings an umbrella over his shoulder and I half-carry and half-drag the optimistically blue beach chair as tall as I am 200 ft. to the edge of the sand. I’m eight and will spend the whole day in the water. The sand burns the bottoms of our feet as we make the mad dash. Running in deep dry sand makes my feet weigh twice my body weight. We drop our load without stopping and make it—just barely—to the edge of the ocean. I don’t move until my feet and calves are buried by the waves pushing sand.
Water breaks around my thighs and I curl my toes around broken seashells and pebbles. I catch a pebble with my big toe and try to pull it out from the suction of sand and ocean. It wiggles against the bottom of my foot. I shriek and run up to the damp hard sand where only the edge of sea foam touches. Grampity laughs and he says he can hear them scratching. For years I put my ear to the soggy beach, trying to hear them. He digs, flips wet clumps of sand between his long legs, making a pile swept away by a wave. He finally comes up with two gray crawling things, calls them sand crabs. He puts the pile of wet sand in my hands. I feel their legs swim against my palm. I drop them back onto the sand and they dig to the cool and dark places they’d rather be. We dig for sand crabs the rest of the morning. They tickle my palms, and leave behind only a small round bubble of a gravestone when I let them go.
Jocelyn didn’t believe in salt. She and my grandfather were married for ten years of bland food and neurotic meal portion control. Once she tells my Aunt with Downs-Syndrome, celiac disease, and diabetes that she’s the healthiest person at the table because her plate is mostly vegetables and un-seasoned grilled chicken. At her dinner party, my cousins and I dump the vegetable soup she makes off her back deck and order Pizza on the way home.
“Bobby, make sure you don’t eat the dessert okay? You don’t want to get too fat in here, do you baby?”
She was on her way out the door of my grandfather’s second hospital room. The Montefiore Rehabilitation Ward was well stocked with occupants. It was loud and busy, and at the moment the door was shut to chaos. The bed had a guard on it like the kind for kids who roll out of bed too often. Apparently he had been trying to get up on his own. I was sitting in the corner, I’d been there half an hour while she cooed at him and fielded calls on his cell phone. Every few minutes she’d yap instructions and updates at his work contacts and family that dared call him. She plopped the phone on the side-table, next to the family pictures my mother brought. Six months later I’d find these in the trash, covered in another salt-less vegetable ridden soup.
“Make sure he doesn’t eat the dessert. And have him order a salad for dinner. It’s iceberg lettuce, but better than the tacos or God forbid…meatloaf. Who knows what that stuff is made of.”
Salt. It almost spilled out of my mouth, a wave of compelled ocean water. Jocelyn was small and tight, like a fishing rod with a feed of six inches. I waited for it to pass, swallowed. She left in a chilly breeze of having somewhere to be.
“Do you have anywhere you are supposed to be?”
His words were slow and round. They doubled back on each other, stunted by the left half of his body’s unwillingness to work. It took me three tries to understand his first question.
“Not particularly. Figured I would hang out here.”
“Sounds good. What are you reading?”
The talking was slow. I cracked my own jaw, as I watched him try to form words like he had a wad of gum or a jawbreaker tucked inside his left cheek. We went to therapy. Physical first, where I placed my right hip against his left thigh and we walked up and down the hallway while he held onto a walker with tennis balls on the ends. He complained that it made him look old.
“Mr. Thompson, let’s try this first. Maybe tomorrow you can try on your own.”
“I’m damn well not going to use anything for old farts who spend too much time at the mall.”
It was the fullest sentence he’d spoken, even if it took him four times to say it. The aids all called him cheeky. I knew better. Occupational Therapy was his least favorite. He would skip numbers when he had to lift the hula hoop over his head 2, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 20.
In speech and vision therapy we played Go Fish with giant cards. He would look at them and crinkle his nose while he studied his potential moves. He was as triumphant laying down a pair of twos as taking a trick in his once weekly bridge games. All he needed was a “glass of good brandy.”
My parent’s anniversary collides with my Grandparents weekly bridge night. My littlest sister, Emilie, and I are in the kitchen and she’s spilled some of the blue fizz pop down her shirt. Mimi is wiping her sticky face with a wet cloth, but Em is already itching to take off and bounces on her heels. It’s after dinner and I’ve got a long glass wand in my hand filled with gold and silver moons and stars. It’s smooth and chilly in my palm. In an hour, I will be sitting in the living room while my Grandparents play bridge, and watch the stars and moods slide from one end to the other. It will be slow and deliberate, like oil.
Tonight, Grampity drinks brandy and plays bridge in the dining room. I gallop plastic horses around the table and eat green olives from the garnishing tray. In the morning Grampity combs his hair and shaves while I brush my teeth. He wears a white t-shirt only until he walks out the door for work. He makes me filet of toast with butter and honey, slices it into bite-sized pieces. In the evening, we turn on the jets in the bathtub and wind-up toy submarines.
“It’s time for…The Secret Box!”
We gasp. Only kids allowed. In the top drawer of his dark wood dresser tucked in a corner, we pull it out. I believe no grown-up knows where it is, and the treasure within is constantly replenished by elves. Sometimes, when he turns on the fan, lightsticks fall from the ceiling.
We’ll save the lightsticks until summer evenings when the sand has cooled. We’ll leave our shoes by the boardwalk. The lifeguards will have turned in, dragged their giant white wooden chairs back from the tide. Emilie and I will climb to the top of the chairs and leap down, a hundred single moments of flight while Grampity cracks open our lightsticks and ties kite string through the loops. Falls are cushioned by pale sand that will get in our hair and under our fingernails. At dark, he’ll ask us if we want him to send our light sticks to the moon. He’ll whip it around in a circle, a sphere of green or orange or blue light, and let go. It will disappear into the sky, and the waves will crash for a moment unaccompanied by shrieks and peals of laughter. We’ll run to find it, a dot of colored light sticking out of leftover shells.
Stroke: Sometimes called a “brain attack” is the rapidly developing loss of brain functions due to disturbance of blood supply to the brain. I admit, I’m a Googler. One of those awfully irritating people who looks up everything you said in our last conversation to make sure it’s accurate, who procrastinates papers by checking up on old teachers, classmates, my parents, how the earth spins on an axis. Consequently I know a lot of mostly useless information and frequently spout “Did You Know” facts much to the chagrin of people I spend the most time with. Stroke was not one of those things I knew about, though I could tell you that the Polish actor and writer killed by the Manson Family in Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s home was named Wojciech Frykowski, and that the scientific name for Sea Turtles is Chelonioidea. I googled stroke because I knew nothing about it, only the signs the first-aid video, courtesy of The Red Cross, told me to look for. I got as far as the first sentence and clicked out of the window.
My grandfather and PJ were in the living room. PJ only met him once before the stroke but now they watched the Panther’s bowl game and PJ yelled about Bill Stull and my grandfather made fists and harrumphed every time Wastadt called a bad play. PJ talked about graduate school, and my grandfather told him he once got so drunk during business school he threw up on a test and still handed it in. PJ comes with me once my grandfather only breathes. He doesn’t tell me the last words he says to him.
It only took one of us to lift him upright every half hour. He’d lost weight. I brought him hoagies and waffle fries. I took the garbage home in my purse, hoped Jocelyn couldn’t smell it.
Jocelyn sent me curt e-mails asking me to babysit. She told me no alcohol before she left today. I’ve been pouring brandy and wine since I was tall enough to reach where the liquor glasses are kept in the cupboard, the cupboard my family keeps our glasses in now.
“Two inches of wine in a coffee mug!” He asked twice, even though I heard him the first time. I found the red wine on top of the fridge.
I was afraid to touch the cupboards, leave fingerprints. Princess Sophia Anne, the skittish cat with a purple bow around her neck, watched me from around the corner. I was terrified for a moment that she would tell. A picture of her was on my parent’s fridge, a card Jocelyn sent out announcing their new addition. Her fully grown daughters were not featured as prominently in photographs. I poured the wine, it was dry and strong. I poured him two inches two more times. I scrubbed the coffee mug until my hands were pruny. I wrote a story called “Two Inches of Wine in a Coffee Mug” and sent it to his e-mail when I went away to camp that summer. I counseled the horse camp and I e-mailed him again, asked if he remembered Mimi taking me to horse-back riding lessons on Saturdays. Jocelyn left a voicemail asking me not to send him e-mails that confuse him. It makes him upset.
It’s finally warm enough to not wear shoes outside. Grampity takes me to cowboy hill. The snow is completely gone, and the grass is finally more green than brown. We lay on our backs in the middle of the hill. Cross our right legs across the left. He loosens his shoe and kicks it as high and far as it will go. It disappears in the weak sun, and crashes through a thicket of trees. I kick mine off too. We chase them down the hill and kick them off again.
My mom and I fought yesterday and she ripped up the posters in my room. She yelled for an hour. My dad tells me she gets it from her father. I don’t believe him at first. He tells me that Grampity came home from a Christmas party dressed as an elf and caught my Uncle and his friends smoking pot on the third floor. He yelled until they were gone. I laugh, but my mother and I fight like this for the next three years.
He’s brought a bucket of soapy water. He uses ropes and sticks to make the biggest bubbles I have ever seen. He expands his arms, they are twice as long as mine. I hold Emilie from behind because I’m bigger and I don’t want her to pop them. I want to pretend I still believe that if we let them go, they can float to outer-space. I don’t want to ruin the magic even though I am well past the age of believing in it. He tells me 7th grade will get better. Mimi is dead by August, cancer eats away her stomach. Grampity can’t stand up and speak at the memorial service.
In late March, my mother called during the first spring storm. The thunder cracked so loudly I couldn’t hear her voice. Hospice is the final leg of slow death, and there are several things needed in order to qualify for it. There’s something about being too close to a situation that renders a person ignorant. From what I’m told, qualifying for Hospice is about what you eat: the amount, the desire for food, the weight you lose. I told PJ that it’s because a steady diet of mushy vegetables would make anyone stop eating.
The woman who gave me a tour showed me a shelf in the family fridge where we could put food. I wondered if there was a shelf in the cupboards for brandy. We had to put thickening powder in his drinks. There was always coke in the fridge. The thickening powder made it fizz so much I had to stir every cup for 10 minutes until he could drink more than foam. The hospice was a five minute bus-ride from campus. I wrote four term papers sitting in his room. He and I talked about Song of Solomon, he told me he was on an airplane to Chicago when he read the ending. I told him I was sitting at the desk in Rea House, alone, and that I called three people afterward.
Some days he remembered I was there. Mostly I brought him milkshakes and burgers from Craig Street and I would read him the newspaper or sections from my papers or the book I was reading. Sleep was sporadic for both of us. He would see people and ask for things that weren’t there. I would drink Diet Coke to stay awake after nights of insomnia. We were in the same place, this arena of not so living. The sun would set into a rabbit hole, waiting for him to dive after it. Every day, every moment of living in this transition space, was another one not knowing if time would move, if death would seep in under the door and curl around his toes.
The last day I spoke with Jocelyn, we were to meet with a social worker. Anne had a shaved head, and wore shades of blue—mourning clothes. I stood at the end of the hall of Forbes Hospice, waiting for directions. My mother, who was weepy and had broken the vacuum that morning, left to speak with her father. My own father, still dressed in a suit and tie from work, had a hand on my shoulder. Jocelyn wielded the paper, her golden ticket, in the air from the end of the hall.
“I have a DNR. He doesn’t want antibiotics!” Pneumonia was ravaging his chest.
I’m 18 and I hate living alone. It’s been two weeks since I moved out, and I just want to be able to sleep through the night. Grampity calls me after work. We go out to eat, go to the coffee shop, go to the opera, go to the movies. He brings me books he’s read, and DVD’s of BBC productions. We talk about my apartment, my psychology class, the sour cherry tree in his front yard, going to the beach in the summer. He tells me college will get better, that I have to find my niche.
The room was small, the furniture was white and tiny, space enough for dolls with wide blue eyes and white lace dresses. Jocelyn handed us an itinerary for the funeral.
“He’s not even dead.”
My mother, in times of chaos, forgets to hold her tongue. My father, whose words are soft and calculated, puts a hand on her knee. The social worker coughs, suggests that we should start by talking about why we’re here.
She presses on, “I’ve got it all worked out.”
Her son-in-law was going to give the eulogy. I’ve met him twice. I folded the paper into quarters, then eighths, sixteenths.
…best for Bob…amicable…family…the funeral should be…
Words turned into thunder. I was impatient. I just wanted to see sunlight, and hear waves crash. I missed the last week he has at the beach. I made $200 herding kids into swimming pools and on hikes. I just wanted to dig for sand crabs and make bubbles bigger than my head. Guilt is a creeping, crawling thing. It’s the color of jealousy, the smell of despair, mossy and dark and crowded in a room with no air.
The sanctuary is always hot from April to September. People fan themselves with bibles and hymnals. I drop my bag in the pew we’ve always sat in, where he made me word games on bulletins, and handed me books he kept in his briefcase. I’ve never been able to sit still in church. I make these games for myself now, guess at definitions of words, make up my own languages. Jocelyn is the only one who wears a black dress, speaks only to my aunt. She will stay at the reception for ten minutes. The paper in my hands is sweaty, I’ve read it over a hundred times, had an hour of sleep.
Most of it feels like I’ve forgotten my glasses: there is blue, a man with a cane, and a poem about rainbows and Princess Sophia Anne from Jocelyn read by her daughter who once had dreadlocks. I play the best game he taught me, put the words “in bed” after all the hymn titles. I’m finally hungry, and I think about the five page paper I haven’t started. I go other places.
I am not comfortable in the pulpit, I swallow, stumble over the first words. I speak because the only other speakers haven’t known him. I speak because the back of my throat hurts and I have to say something. I speak because death is worse when you are old enough to remember.
In his willingness to do magic, to make filet of toast in the mornings, to spend long hours doing crossword puzzles on the sand while I played until I was pruny in the ocean, to dig up sand crabs, to tell stories, to have meet with me weekly when I was lonely in my first apartment, that is what hasn’t been lost. It still lives, it breathes, it swallows even now that he does not. Even if I am old and absentminded, if I forget these moments amidst the chaos, they remain part of who I am.